Trademarks and Made-up Names
By Kay Springsteen
If you’re writing fiction for a Big 6 publisher, or screen plays for hit TV shows or mega movies, you likely don’t have to worry about mentioning trademarked items or copyrighted names in your work. After all, such companies would have resources to gain rights needed to make the references. But if you’re still a relatively little fish in a sea of other little fishes in the writing world, the mere mention of copyrighted names (Luke Skywalker, Zorro, Superman, Batman, etc.), or even the names of real people (Martha Stewart, Bruce Willis, Sharon Osborne) in a book can bring about nightmares. Most small publishers also request the use of generic equivalents or made-up names for brand-name (trademarked) products (Hershey’s, Keebler, Minute Maid, Coke, Purina, etc.). In some cases this is not possible. Perhaps there is no simple generic replacement or the description is complex (take Mylar balloon for instance; it’s not quite the same thing… getting a bouquet of Mylar and latex balloons versus a bouquet of metallic-looking plastic and latex balloons). In these cases, some publishers will allow use of trademarks if the reference does not paint the product in a negative light. That is, if your serial killer likes to stop at Starbucks for an Iced Caramel Macchiato before every murder, using the branded name in your scenario, you could be construed as stating the drink is responsible for the murder. It’s a stretch but that’s where it gets tricky. Because these days, people stretch. And if you are one of those aforementioned little fish, you will want to take steps so people can’t possibly stretch the connections in a way your writing will come back and bite you. This could involve you, the author, or your agent, acquiring rights from the appropriate person for the appropriate use before you submit (after you submit, it’s often too late unless you want to put your release date on hold while you procure these rights).
Some authors feel—and rightly so—that using brand names in their work helps readers identify with the story better. It lends an air of the familiar, the recognizable, and sometimes these things help readers identify with a character. Unfortunately, that benefit is currently overshadowed when you are published through a smaller press, by the fact that these smaller presses cannot afford the actual cost of defending usage or even the negative publicity surrounding a lawsuit. And there is no way to determine, without having secured the rights to use product names, which companies will sue or why.
The thing is, when you want a fashion doll, for instance (thank you to Iris Blobel for the inspiration here), and you cannot use “Barbie,” well, using “fashion doll” also becomes old and tired in the manuscript, and, dare I say a little impersonal and sterile? So over in the Astraea Press Authors’ group, where we tend to really let go and have fun with such things, we got everything from several suggestions of alternate names, to more specialized names such as Catalina Cathy or Santa Monica Monique (the equivalent of Malibu Barbie–thanks, Jeanne Theunissen) to suggestions for descriptions to take the place of the name. “Doll,” with the qualifier of “overblown bosom, totally unrealistic… etc.” (thank you, Meg Mims) to simply describing it as “statuesque plastic fashion doll” (Jeff Salter’s suggestion). Besides the impersonal, distancing factor when using only description, the phrasing itself can become boring, not to mention quite cumbersome. And if that doll happens to be a major prop in the story—that is, the favorite companion of a child who plays a large role in the story—naming it “statuesque plastic fashion doll,” becomes far too cumbersome.
This is not only true with fashion dolls, but anything. If your cat has a favorite brand of cat food, and you mention feeding him more than a couple of times in the story, “Tippy’s favorite cat food,” in any incarnation, is just too much. And while it’s true you may be able to describe the blue bag with the red and white checkered box on the front as the cat’s favorite, and then forever after simply describe the character as feeding the cat his favorite food, and sometimes just feeding the cat. With other things, though, such as the aforementioned fashion doll, when it’s a critical part of characterization and shows up on every page or every time the character puts in an appearance, even describing it in great detail, and then using doll or fashion doll throughout the rest of the text is distracting because of the repetition.
One solution? Make the doll its own character. No, not one that walks and talks, but a child’s best friend. And of course the doll will have a name. So make one up. Follow the trend closely enough to acquire the same rhythm (Malibu Barbie becomes Santa Monica Monique) and describe the doll once or twice in different ways. For example, from the mother’s PoV:
“Mother!” wailed Tiffany. “I can’t find Santa Monica Monique!”
Jeanne rolled her eyes. Her daughter was always misplacing the fashion doll and expecting others to find it for her.”
Later, in perhaps the PoV of the mother’s love interest (aka the hero), the description can be furthered, since the mother wouldn’t likely think beyond what type of doll her daughter has lost, but the hero might notice things about it the mom takes for granted:
The dark-hair child kept her eyes focused squarely on the statuesque plastic fashion doll Grasping the red-headed doll around its unrealistically thin waist, Tiffany hopped the figure from room to room in the pink plastic doll house. Good thing the doll was made of hard plastic or its overblown bosom might have given it a concussion the way the kid bounced her around.
“Tiffany, don’t forget to put Monique on the shelf when you go to bed tonight so the dog doesn’t get her again,” said Jeanne as she flounced into the room, her perky walk making her look a little too much like bouncing “Monica” in Trent’s estimation.
The differences in perspective give all the description necessary to tell the reader that this is a mock-Barbie and naming the doll lends credibility by removing the sense of stability. You can do this with any branded item in a story. Need a big box store? Instead of Walmart of K-Mart, try Star Mart. Need a grocery market? Piggly Wiggly can magically become Fred’s Fresh Foods. You don’t have to go crazy, but have a little fun with it. It’s your story, and you’re a creative person…so show off your creativity. Don’t stress because your publisher prefers generic names or made-up names, go ahead and make them up! By making them up instead of going completely generic, you will add dimension to your stories by staving off the sterility of the nonspecific name.
Try it! Pick a brand name and change it to something else. Let me know what you come up with.